Seeburg jukebox, Aireon model, circa 1946, designed by Raymond Loewy
To simply see an object is not to understand an object. In an art-historical investigation, various approaches can be undertaken in order to explore the meaning of an object. In particular, the contextual approach provides an effective means to understand the social, political, and cultural circumstances surrounding that object. Often when using the contextual approach, the significance of the object is dependent on its societal meaning. Unlike other approaches such as formalism, the object is not considered to be autonomous and uninfluenced by external factors. Rather, the meaning of the object is derived by the external reaction to the object. Although contemporary historians often use the contextual approach, there has been no formal treatise on the approach. Historiographers have written about cultural history, social history, political history, etc. yet not exactly a contextual history. The reason for such an overlook may be because current higher education assumes so many of the tactics of contextualism that it almost “goes without saying.” In Ray Batchelor’s article “Not looking at kettles” (1986), an interesting model of analysis is given that is close to a contextual approach in which he explores an object by the forces from which it was made: idea/invention, material, making/manufacturing, marketing, art, and use. By employing Batchelor’s model in analyzing the Wurlitzer Jukebox model 1015 (1947), the contextual approach as used in art history is demonstrated.
A jukebox is a coin-operated phonograph in which a variety of music recordings can be played. In America from the 1940’s to the 1950’s, a jukebox could be found in most public establishments where food and drink or dancing was provided. Some places even became known as “juke joints,” emphasizing the important role the jukebox played in such communal environments. During World War II, jukebox production had been halted as the U.S. government forbade the manufacturing of coin automats since it was a non-essential good. Thus, in 1946 jukebox companies were eager to restart production with new models. Most companies wanted jukebox designs that were not a relic of World War II but rather a ‘new’ machine for the new era. For instance, Seeburg hired Raymond Loewy to design the Aireon model (see fig. 1) which although considered today as a classic postwar design, the model was not popular at the time and by 1947, only ten thousand machines were sold. In contrast, the Wurlitzer Company took a more conservative approach and commissioned Paul Fuller to design the model 1015 which combined the best elements of previous jukeboxes before the war including colored bubble tubing as part of the framing and an ornate metal grill. Although not considered to be the most innovative design of the jukebox, the Wurlitzer model 1015was a success in which 481,000 were sold. The popularity of the Wurlitzer model 1015 in comparison with the Seeburg’s Aireon model indicates how in the immediate aftermath of World War II, American society sought something nostalgic and familiar rather than alien.
Since the Wurlitzer model 1015 was not a “new” design, the success of the jukebox was mainly due to the huge marketing campaign that surrounded it. Rather than selling directly to the restaurant or tavern owner, the strategy was to sell the jukebox –along with its sentimental associations- directly to the public; such a marketing strategy was unprecedented. The theme of the advertisements was the “American way of life” in which idealistic scenes of community were depicted for every festivity from Christmas to a wedding reception. For instance, one advertisement was a magazine illustration of a birthday celebration with the caption “24 Top Bands Played at Her Party”. The composition is centered around the Wurlitzer jukebox, in which jukebox appears almost as the protagonist, the life of the party. Such commercial marketing for the Wurlitzer model 1015 suggests that American consumer psyche desired that which was optimistic, colorful, and nationalistic.
During the postwar period, the jukebox also became increasingly associated with the youth generation. The records played on a jukebox marked the beginning of pop music, and consequently allowed music genres such as Rock n’ Roll and Rhythm and Blues to become widespread. Jukeboxes such as the Wurlitzer model 1015 provided the means for the first music subculture to be established in which consuming a particular type of music became a way of being, a lifestyle. Music also became a sign by which the young judged and were judge by others, and thus during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the jukebox was the main vehicle by which this social phenomenon occurred. Consumption of jukebox music became a communal act in which the jukebox itself signified a sense of community.
As exemplified by this brief contextual analysis of the Wurlitzer jukebox 1015, the contextual approach can be easily applied to any object as it allows for exploration by many avenues. In the case of the Wurlitzer jukebox, the object can be explored by its social function at the time it was made, the tactics that were used to promote the object (i.e. advertising), or its cultural symbol during the height of the object’s popularity. Since contextualism is such a flexible approach, the word ‘context’ has become an umbrella term for all societal factors that influence the shaping of the object’s meaning. Such a broad term indicates that the approach is not as focused as others such as Marxism or psychoanalysis. Also, a negative result of the rise of contextualism in the study of art history is that the object itself is often demoted to a secondary position in which the historian often places emphasis on surrounding, usually textual, evidence instead of the visual evidence. Art historian Svetlana Alpers has made interesting comments on the weakness of a contextual form of investigation; in Alper’s article “Interpretation without Representation” (1983), she stated that her contemporaries seek meaning through plot rather than pictorial representation and no longer stress the importance of what is actually before one’s eyes. Also Alpers argued that the dependence on texts as evidence is a reaction against formalism in which the historian has become wary of using visual representation as a valid analysis. While formalism created an “iconographic straightjacket” for its followers, a solely contextual approach leads the historian away from a focus on the object itself. Thus, although a contextual approach helps one grasp the social meaning of an object, it does not provide a total understanding of the object and consequently should not be the only approach used.
Nevertheless, the contextual approach in art history is a significant mode of analysis since it allows the social history of the object to create the theoretical framework instead of the reverse. In the example of the Wurlitzer jukebox, it would not only be difficult to interpret the object without its context, but its significance would be totally lost. Similar to how the Wurlitzer jukebox was created out of various social, economic, and cultural factors, so too is the contextual approach.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
Ahlstrom Appraisals | Personal Property Appraisals and Art Consultations | Serving Atlanta & Southeast | Fine Art, Antiques & Vintage
 Michael Adams, Lukas Jürgen and Tom Maskell. Jukeboxes. (Atglen: Schieffer, 1996), p. 29.
 Ger Rosendal. Jukebox Heaven. (Abcoude: Uniepers, 1991), p. 125.
 Rosendal. Jukebox Heaven. (Abcoude: Uniepers, 1991), p. 125.
 Ger Rosendal. Jukebox Heaven. (Abcoude: Uniepers, 1991), p. 125.
 Christopher Pearce. Jukebox Art. (London: H.C. Blossom, 1991), p. 58.
 John Storey. “Side Saddle on the Golden Calf: Moments of Utopia in American Pop Musi and Pop Music Culture,” An American half-century: postwar culture and politics in the USA. Ed. Klein, Michael. (Boulder: Pluto Press, 1994), p. 141.
 Eric Fernie, ed. Art History and Its Methods. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 281.
 Eric Fernie, ed. Art History and Its Methods. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 283.